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Your Good Health Starts With You

Take steps to reduce your risk of disease and talk to your health care professional about your health concerns. Women now demand more from medical research and from the health care system. As a result, more women have become partners in their medical care, working with their health care professionals to make medical decisions. Here are several tips that you can follow to be an active partner in managing your health.

  • Be an informed consumer. Read as much as you can about health and wellness strategies and about any specific health conditions you may have. Ask your health care professional to recommend sources you can trust. Be sure to review any recommendations you read about with your health care team. Health-related Web sites, such as http://www.healthywomen.org produced by the National Women's Health Resource Center, and other Web sites produced by major health organizations are good places to start. Look for .org, .gov and .edu Web addresses to help gauge their reliability and accuracy.
  • Know your family medical history, and learn about other factors that may put you at higher risk for disease.
  • Maintain a healthy lifestyle. Exercising, developing and maintaining a healthy diet, not smoking and managing stress can help keep you healthy.
  • Always ask your health care professional for a full explanation of any pharmaceutical or other treatments she/he prescribes, including the side effects that you may experience.
  • Schedule regular medical checkups and screenings to monitor your current health and identify potential problems early.
  • Seek a second medical opinion if you feel you need more information. This may be especially important if you ever face surgery or treatment for a chronic or life-threatening illness. Your health insurer may also require a second opinion.
  • Be aware of disease symptoms. Know when to seek medical care and where to turn if you develop symptoms.

Medical Treatments

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Learn the Benefits and Risks

The terms "benefits" and "risks" are tossed around quite a bit. What do they really mean when referring to your health? A benefit is something that can increase your well-being. A risk is something that could potentially cause harm, which you should be aware of. When someone suggests you are "at risk" for developing a particular disease, it means that you have a greater chance of developing the condition than someone else without the same risk. But it does not mean that you will absolutely develop the condition. In many cases, you can do a great deal to minimize your risks.

When we are healthy, making a decision about medical care seems straightforward. Your goal should be to get as much information as possible, learn and understand the benefits and risks of certain medications, procedures, or medical options and make a decision with the guidance of your health care professional that best meets your needs.

When diagnosed with a chronic or serious medical condition, suddenly the balance shifts — we are in a new, unfamiliar territory, yet we are expected to weigh the benefits and risks of treatments and to make the same types of decisions regarding our medical care. But often, when we are ill or confronted with a diagnosis, we are overwhelmed. Decision-making may seem impossible. Physical and emotional stress can stop us in our tracks.

There are several steps you can take to become a partner in the health care decision-making process with your medical team — in sickness and in health — that can help make your experience a positive one. These steps can help you assess the benefits and risks of the medicines and other treatments that are recommended for your condition, so that you are comfortable with having made the best decision for you.

1. Modern medicine continues to evolve. Medical researchers are continually asking new questions and studying new theories about all types of diseases. This means that we do not have all the answers we need to treat many illnesses. Making medical decisions involves reviewing the most current knowledge available and making the best choice based on this information. Your health care professional should have the most up-to-date medical information, and you should feel comfortable asking her or him about the latest treatments for your condition.

2. Take time to assess how risk-sensitive you are. How much risk are you comfortable with? Do you consider yourself a risk-taker in some situations? Are you willing to accept some risks associated with a particular treatment, but not other types of risk? These kinds of questions can help you decide how much risk you're willing to accept when discussing certain medical treatment options. Your comfort level with risks and benefits associated with your medical care is critical to your decision-making process.

3. Ask a lot of questions. Because your health history is unique, you'/ll want to know how a certain medication will benefit you specifically. Likewise, your health care professional can provide more specific information about how medication or treatment options may affect you. All medication can cause side effects; be sure to ask specifically about side effects associated with any medication prescribed for you. Likewise, share any personal information your health care professional should know when considering treatment, such as what other medications you may be taking or health conditions you may have.

4. Make an effort to go behind the headlines. A recent study of the mass media reported that nearly one in four news stories about health research and older women omits crucial information. Discuss any research news you have questions about with your health care professional.

Maximize the Benefits of Drug Treatments

For almost any given medical condition, there are many pharmaceutical treatment options. The tips that follow can help you communicate with your health care professional so that she or he will be able to prescribe the treatment that best suits your medical needs:

  • Share information about all medications you are currently taking (including prescriptions drugs and over-the-counter remedies as well as herbal supplements). Medications can interact with each other to cause uncomfortable or harmful side effects or may reduce effectiveness of one or more of the medications you take.
  • Tell your health care professional if you are pregnant, or planning to be pregnant in the near future. Some medications pose special risks for pregnant women. There are also things you can do before you become pregnant to ensure the health of your baby such as consuming adequate amounts of folic acid, or folate, a B vitamin that can be found in some enriched foods and vitamin pills and has been shown to prevent serious defects in the fetal brain and spine. The U.S. Public Health Service recommends that all women who could possibly become pregnant get 400 micrograms (or 0.4 mg) of folic acid every day.
  • Be sure you know or ask about the benefits of the medication she or he is prescribing.
  • Ask about any of the common side effects associated with the medication being prescribed, as well as any potentially serious side effects.
  • Ask your health care professional or pharmacist if there is a time during the day that you should take the medication to maximize benefits and minimize possible side effects (for example, should you always take it with meals, or before bed?).
  • Sometimes starting a new medication can be worrisome. Be sure to voice all of your concerns to your health care professional so that she or he can identify other information about the medication that may lessen your doubts.

Once your health care professional has, with your input, decided on a pharmaceutical treatment that is right for you, there are several tips that you can follow to get the most from your medication:

  • Always take a medication as prescribed — the dosage (daily amount and frequency) of a medication has been proven to provide the safest and most effective therapy. This information is indicated on the label.
  • Follow any special instructions, such as "take with full glass of water."
  • Take the medication for as long as your pharmacist has indicated, even if you no longer notice any symptoms.
  • Never take someone else's medication, even if your symptoms seem to be identical.
  • Contact your health care professional if the common side effects that you are experiencing are causing you any discomfort or disrupting your life.
  • Contact your health care professional immediately if you experience any serious side effects. Severe pain, heart palpitations, breathing difficulty or abnormal bleeding are examples of serious side effects.

Copyright 2003 National Women's Health Resource Center Inc. (NWHRC)

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